In the Spotlight

News & Features
Norm Coleman: Education
By Martin Kaste
July 30, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
Part of Election '98

EARLY IN 1996, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman took a big political risk and came out in favor of school vouchers:

Coleman: Let's put aside the ideology. Let's try to succeed. If we have an opportunity to do good things for the kids of St. Paul, then let's seize that opportunity. Let's do the right thing. Let's put the resources where they'll make a difference.
At the time, Norm Coleman was still a Democrat, and the idea of using public money to send low-income students to private schools was anathema to many of the DFL's party faithful - and especially the teachers' unions who back the DFL. Coleman's willingness to line up with Republican governor Arne Carlson on the vouchers issue was the beginning of the end for Coleman's career as a Democrat, and after the party refused to endorse him for re-election, he became a Republican.

Two-and-a-half years later, Coleman doesn't support the vouchers idea anymore. He says he now prefers the tax breaks Governor Carlson initiated in 1997, which help parents pay for education-related expenses. Coleman says tax incentives are the better way to give families more education choices. But Coleman is still willing to propose other education reforms that make many DFLers - and teachers' unions - see red.

Coleman: I support merit pay. Education is one of the few systems in the world - in America - where we don't reward excellence. Reward excellence, but also hold people accountable.
Coleman is a pragmatist about education. He likes standardized tests, and he thinks the state should find ways to demand better academic results for the money they get from the Legislature, but he's not wedded to any single approach.
Coleman: There's no one, perfect system for every kid. I believe that introducing notions of competition, charter schools - a range of options for kids - stregthens public schools. I want strong public schools, I am passionate about that. The question is how do you get there, and you don't get there by promising more money or promising to protect what you have.
Some Democratic candidates have proposed increasing the amount of money the state gives local school districts. Right now, the state picks up about 60 percent of school budgets. Mark Dayton says the state should contribute 100 percent, which he says would lower local school taxes. Coleman calls that "pie-in-the-sky" thinking. He says full state funding of schools might lower local taxes temporarily, but he says down the road, local taxes will creep up again and residents will find themselves paying higher property taxes and higher state taxes.

Ultimately, Coleman says, the state should not put more money into local schools until it can get better guarantees that the money will help Minnesota's kids learn.